As the United States withdraws from the Middle East, China leans

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In January alone, five senior officials from oil-rich Arab monarchies visited China to discuss energy and infrastructu...


BEIRUT, Lebanon — In January alone, five senior officials from oil-rich Arab monarchies visited China to discuss energy and infrastructure cooperation. The head of Turkish diplomacy has pledged to eradicate “media reports targeting Chinain the Turkish media, and the Iranian foreign minister insisted that progress should be 400 billion dollars of investment that China has promised its country.

As the United States, weary from decades of war and upheaval in the Middle East, seeks to limit its involvement there, China is deepening its ties with Washington’s friends and foes in the region.

China is far from rivaling the vast involvement of the United States in the Middle East. But states are increasingly looking to China not only to buy their oil, but also to invest in their infrastructure and cooperate on technology and security, a trend that could accelerate as the United States will withdraw.

For Beijing, recent unrest in neighboring countries such as Afghanistan and Kazakhstan has reinforced its desire to cultivate stable ties in the region. The outreach follows the withdrawal of the U.S. military from Afghanistan after 20 years, as well as the official end of his combat mission in Iraq. That, along with the Biden administration’s frequent discussions of China as a its top national security priorityleft many of its partners in the Middle East to believe that Washington’s attention was elsewhere.

Beijing has welcomed the chance to expand its influence, and Arab leaders appreciate that China – which touts the virtue of “non-interference” in other countries’ affairs – does not get involved in their domestic politics and does not don’t send his army to overthrow hostile dictators. And each side can count on the other to ignore its human rights violations.

“There is a feeling in the region that the United States is actively pulling out, and this is an opportunity for China,” said Gedaliah AftermanHead of the Asian Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at Reichman University in Israel.

China’s interest in the Middle East has long been rooted in its oil needs. It buys nearly half of its crude from Arab states, with Saudi Arabia topping the list, and it will certainly need more as its economy, the world’s second-largest, continues to grow.

But in recent years, China has also invested in critical infrastructure in the region and struck deals to supply countries there with telecommunications and military technology.

Chinese state-backed companies are considering investments in a seaport in Chabahar, Iran. They participated in the financing of an industrial park in the port of Duqm, in Oman, and in the construction and operation of a container terminal in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, as well as two new ports in Israel.

Such moves reflect Beijing’s view of the Middle East as crucial to its Belt and Road Initiative, a sweeping plan to build international infrastructure to facilitate Chinese trade.

China hopes to connect markets and supply chains from the Indian Ocean to Eurasia, making the Persian Gulf region “a really important hub,” said Jonathan Fulton, nonresident senior fellow for the programs of the Middle East to Atlantic Council.

In its trade relations in the region, China has not directly confronted the United States. But it often presents itself as an alternative partner for countries that question Washington’s development model or its history of political and military intervention.

“At a time when the United States faces ups and downs in its domestic and foreign policies, these countries believe that China is not only the most stable country, but also the most reliable,” said Li Guofuresearcher at the China Institute of International Studies, which is supervised by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

China’s main interests in the region are economic, but its growing ties have also brought it political dividends. Middle Eastern states have remained silent on issues like Beijing cancellation of political freedoms in Hong Kong and his threatening movements towards Taiwan.

Perhaps more surprisingly, given their predominantly Muslim population, almost none have publicly criticized the forced internment and indoctrination of their Uyghur Muslim minoritythat the United States has considered a genocide. Some Arab states have even deported Uyghurs to China, ignoring fears that they could be tortured or killed.

Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur activist in Norway, said two Chinese citizens were detained in Saudi Arabia after one of them called for violent resistance to the Chinese crackdown. Both men were told they would be sent back to China, Mr Ayup said. Their current whereabouts are unknown.

Mr Ayup said he knew Uyghurs who had been expelled from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states. He said five of them were sent to China from Saudi Arabia, which has historically presented itself as a defender of Muslims around the world.

“They are not servants of the two holy sites,” Ayup said, referring to the Saudi king’s official title as overseer of Islam’s holiest sites. “They are servants of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Among recent Chinese diplomatic visitors to the region, only Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu raised the Uyghur issue, according to official records of the meetings.

For Middle Eastern countries, the benefits of the relationship are clear: China promises to be a long-term buyer of oil and gas and a potential source of investment, without the political complications of trade relations with United States.

Beijing deals with governments that Washington rejects. Syria, whose leaders are under heavy sanctions for atrocities committed during its civil war, has just joined the Belt and Road Initiative. And Iran has become heavily dependent on China since the United States withdrew from the international agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program and reimposed sanctions that have crippled its economy.

But China’s most extensive regional ties are with Arab oil giants in the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

China is the largest trading partner for many countries in the region, and they expect it to buy more oil and gas as the United States, which under the Biden administration has sought to away from fossil fuels, buy less. Last year, trade between China and the Gulf states topped $200 billion for the first time, and cooperation has expanded to new areas.

Bahrain and the Emirates were the first countries to approve Chinese-made coronavirus vaccines, and the Emirates has partnered with Chinese companies to produce them.

In China’s official summaries of the January meetings, the warmest praise was reserved for Saudi Arabia, which China called a “good friend”, “good partner” and “good brother”. On Wednesday, senior defense officials from China and Saudi Arabia held a virtual meeting discuss ways to deepen military ties between the countries.

The Emirates, which want to increase their position as a technological and financial hub, are particularly interested in Chinese companies. “There are a lot of Chinese tech companies now that are on the cutting edge of technology and trying to go global, and they can’t get into the US or Europe because of the regulations,” he said. Eyck Freymanndoctoral student in China studying at the University of Oxford.

He gave the example of SenseTime, a Chinese company that has been criticized by rights groups and blacklisted by the United States to supply Beijing technologies used to profile Uyghurs. This has not deterred Arab customers: in 2019, SenseTime opened a regional headquarters in Abu Dhabi.

“In every country in the Middle East, their public security bureau wants it, and the Chinese are offering this product,” Freymann said.

The United States has tried to block some Chinese moves in the region, in particular infrastructure upgrades by telecommunications giant Huawei, which Washington says could facilitate Chinese espionage. Some Arab countries have nevertheless concluded agreements with Huawei.

Over time, analysts say, China’s aversion to politics and regional conflict could hamper its openness in the Middle East, which is plagued by wars, uprisings and sectarian tensions. China has made no effort to emulate the US security presence there, and US Arab partners have tried to engage with China in a way that does not alienate Washington.

“Gulf states have been careful to balance their approach to ensure that growing ties with China do not antagonize their primary security guarantor, the United States,” said Elham Fakhro, visiting scholar at the Center for Gulf Studies from the University of Exeter.

Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Amy Qin from Taipei, Taiwan. Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting from Beirut and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei, Taiwan.

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